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ender and the Power of Information Technologies

Virtual by Lynn Hershman

Access to information technology (IT) is far from equitable and rarely easy, according to surveys conducted by Web Networks, a non-profit organization, which is addressing gender issues for the "Global Knowledge 97: Knowledge for Development in the Information Age" Conference which will take place in Toronto, Canada, June 22-25, 1997.

The Conference, sponsored by the World Bank and the Dominion of Canada, will draw an estimated twelve hundred participants, which will include senior government officials, local knowledge builders, the nongovernmental (NGO) community, business leaders, and other experts from around the globe. The purpose of GK97 is to look at the role knowledge technologies can play in promoting development.

A woman from Peru wrote, "We can talk about the democratization of communication, but I believe that what is occurring is an increased communication elite, and this is the case with women . . . Information is power, and only a small amount of women and organizations have access to this power."

In some countries, cultural prejudices are hampering the process. A Kenyan wrote, "If there is any training to be had in electronic communications, many organisations regard this as technical training and will send men."

While many countries are experiencing equipment or utility difficulties, women in India are experiencing a different problem, "Because there has been no real research for communication in Indian scripts, usage of this facility is still restricted to the English speakers in our organization."

Some countries are reporting progress. A women's documentation centre based in Cuernavaca, Mexico wrote: "We have been able to promote and disseminate the documentation centre's services more broadly. We have achieved increased participation in the broader women's movement at a national and international level."

Positive experiences are also reported in The United States, "These technologies have had an enormous influence on the broad women's movement, permitting discussions and a sharing of views that before was impossible due to the huge distances and time involved in normal communication processes."

The experience of one woman in Australia illustrates a common experience of women worldwide. "The only negativity is being afraid to start a Listserv or chatroom or conference or newsgroup because I don't want to deal with people who are hostile to feminism, and my work is absolutely feminist. It'll take so much energy to respond appropriately. I can only spend a certain amount of time online each day, and do not want to be swamped by difficult types...When I first began I went on a newsgroup and the bad experience was that there were no women, only men."

Another reported, "I entered the discussions standing up for my people's rights for self-determination, and I felt a lot of frustration and intimidation."

A woman in Switzerland reported the problem can also be the technology itself. "Women seem more reluctant to use this technology. They need to understand what it can do to support their work before they make the effort to learn."

A Canadian concurred, "Women simply have less time to spend hours learning new programs, how to install things, what to do when there is a problem, hanging around on the Internet to see what it has to offer. Largely, though not exclusively, women tend to have more and varied responsibilities (work and home), and this simply doesn't allow the time you need to do the kind of exploring that makes you really comfortable with the technology . . . I think that what largely has brought the women I know to this technology has been necessity and a willingness to communicate more effectively."

An English correspondent who is not involved with the GK-97 has this caution about cultural perceptions: "One of the disadvantages of living in a BIG and dominant country is that it's harder to realize that things can be different and are different elsewhere. In Russia 50% of the engineers are female; in Israeli university computer centers, half to two thirds of the system managers are.

"The problem is that the prejudices of the society you grow up in look like normality to you. For instance: One MLS class I took in Israel in 1972 was taught by a visiting professor from British Columbia. He casually mentioned -- referring to a common cultural background that he thought existed -- 'Of course, no girl would be seen dead heading for the library with an armful of books.' The Israeli class responded with total incomprehension, 'Why not?'

" Too late he realised this phenomenon is U.S. Specific, not General To Humanity. 'Does anyone here know what I'm talking about?' Out of the forty in the class, two raised their hands. One was an American, the other was me. I only knew because I read U.S. books and magazines: in England 5% of the population got a place in a university (England was always frankly elitist about these things) and if you got one, sister, you were there to study full time! None of the Israeli-born-and-bred had the faintest clue what he was talking about; their English wasn't good enough for them to read for pleasure the sort of material that would let them absorb the cultural background of the U.S.

"So what am I trying to say? I guess that women in the U.S. have it a lot harder than I did -- cultural prejudices are much stronger there, which is probably why the feminist movement never made quite the waves in Europe that it did in North America: what you saw as knights in too-shining armour looked to us like windmills. But mainly that there isn't a single generalization you can make about girls vs. boys that describes an actual human attribute (except that on average boys have 20% more muscle mass and are taller): it's all culture. Or as the diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Persia said to his successor: 'You will get on much better here if you just take your expectations of how men and women ought to behave and simply switch them' In Persia men are seen as the sensitive, poetic souls, and women as the hardheaded, practical businesspeople."

Web Networks has published its findings, "Principally, an effort needs to be made at the donor and regulatory decision-making level to ensure that women's needs are considered in the planning of IT programmes and policies.

"There needs to be much greater investment in developing Internet tools and projects that take into account women's needs, as well as investment in women's technical training and capacity-building. It is well known that in general, access to modern technologies is a privilege of those who live in the North. In the South, the need for investment in technical (basic telephone and data line) infrastructure is vital to ensure women have equitable access to communication tools.

"Statistics regarding the participation of women in the Science and Technology sector and mainstream media and communication sector express that although women have made some gains at the low end of the technology spectrum, few gains have been made for women in the high end of the spectrum, nor within the decision making, policy and management strata. The issue of gender in IT project development should be considered in reference to the potential impact of this technology in increasing women's access to information and related technologies and the translation of such access into broader participation and action.

"Quantitative and qualitative IT programme and policy evaluation and monitoring mechanisms should be identified to be able to measure the impact of these initiatives on women's ability to participate, collaborate and achieve goals online.

"Unless these concerns are recognized, first of all by women, and also by those who make high-level IT funding and policy decisions, the development of the Internet will be further skewed and the prospect of greater gender marginalization will be increased."

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